Greenlight Comics is a local comic book store in my home town of Adelaide, Australia, and it holds a very special place in my heart. Not only do I have a great many memories of exciting books and friendly conversations, but it was also the place that let me publish my very first reviews! It’s thanks to them that I’m able to speak to you today, and I’m incredibly grateful for that fact… but today, I want to bring particular attention to their business model.
Unlike many other LCS’s that I know of, Greenlight is particularly special in that it prides itself on how it prioritises independent and creator-owned books over the likes of Marvel and DC. While there is the usual superhero shelf, it’s hardly bigger than the shelves you might see on local creators, biographies, crime and LGBTQ content. In presenting itself like a bookstore, I’m able to find content I never would have read had I visited another store, like Barrier or Animus. Image tends to be what sells the most at their store, from bestsellers like Saga or The Black Monday Murders. It’d take a lot to outsell the entirety of that company at a store like Greenlight. It’d certainly be absurd to think all of Image’s sales numbers are overshadowed by a single man.
So, let’s talk about Junji Ito.
There are few creators that garner as strong or as dedicated of a fanbase as this esteemed mangaka – even within a genre known for creating international cult followings. Born in 1963 (the same year as my parents!) and beginning his manga career in 1987, Ito’s disturbing work blends deep, unnerving horror with a strange sense of absurdism – and it’s what’s kept audiences enraptured with his content to this very day. With the release of Adult Swim’s Uzumaki adaptation on the horizon, I wanted to speak to some of his most essential works: covering the books you need to read from the man, along with what I believe makes him such a distinct and compelling creator.
My first experience with Junji Ito was through discovering Gyo on the internet – and despite expecting a thoroughly disturbing book, my first reaction to the manga was more fascination rather than fear. Ito is actually a big fan of science fiction, and I believe Gyo is probably his biggest creative step in that direction: as a result, this is probably one of the most visually fascinating of his works. The disgusting “walking machine” we see throughout the book – created in the story by the Japanese army during World War II – initially is presented as a mechanism to make various fish walk on land, causing events such as deadly sharks attacking people in the middle of their homes. What the audience is being presented with is, frankly, ridiculous – not that you read Ito’s stories for realism, but I struggled to find myself scared by a shark waddling around on tiny legs, even if it was a treat for the eyes.
And then the machine starts attaching to humans.
Junji Ito has expressed himself as explicitly anti-war, and I think that shows most prominently in Gyo more than any of his other works. The utilization of a machine that I initially dismissed at the beginning of the comic, used to destroy characters we care about from the inside-out – all for the sole purpose of an efficient killing force? The analogy feels a little more overt when I phrase it like that, but its implementation blends seamlessly into Ito’s comic. There’s a lot to read into with Gyo, which makes it both great for rereads and an excellent recommendation for first-timers… especially considering its backup story, The Enigma of Amigara Vault.
Ito tends to create his stories around a picture he creates in his head, and few are as striking as the image of mysterious person-sized holes, entrenched into a looming mountain. This short story – which Ito considers one of his best – is a wonderful example of how he uses chiaroscuro, the treatment of light and shade in a piece of artwork. If you’ve ever seen a classic horror film such as Nosferatu – or even a recent film such as The Lighthouse – then you may already have an idea of how contrast can be used to create a sinister mood to the black-and-white image. Throughout the story, the ominous black holes in the mountain lie in wait for the characters to approach them: striking in their dark simplicity, lurking amidst a slew of rocks and people. Like how it affects the characters, the darkness of these holes instils a deep sense of dread in the reader… yet the ridges of light around the edges of the hole invite them in equal measure, encouraging you to lean into the hole and inspect for yourself. Is it really dark all the way through? Is there no light at the end of the tunnel? The short story does provide you with an answer – and it’s in the form of an ending that hooked me on the rest of Ito’s work.
Ito’s career began with a series of shorts around the character known as Tomie, who I would probably say is his most popular creation. His initial short story of the same name doesn’t have the same level of polish as his later works… though really, that’s hardly surprising. Ito was working as a dental technician when he submitted his first manga, and he had to finish the book in a hurry – but that short story helped him reach a position where he could devote himself to his work. Over the next decade and some change, Ito would sporadically continue his Tomie stories, culminating in the year 2000! The character was incredibly popular across Japan, and sparked several adaptations of her stories over the years.
Honestly, I find Tomie to be one of Ito’s more disturbing collections. While only some of her stories scared or unnerved me, the subject matter is an insanely uncomfortable one. Tomie is something of a supernatural being that defies understanding: like a mythical Hydra or some kind of parasite, any piece of Tomie can grow into its own separate entity. With that fact alone, you could make a fun story about a killer that’s unable to die… but what’s truly unnerving about Tomie is, in some ways, her innocence.
Tomie is a very atypical villain: while she usually has sinister goals in mind, she rarely uses direct violence to get her way. In fact, most often the violence in her stories is done unto herself! With each chapter, the reader is sent to a different location, where a new man fawns over the beautiful teenage girl before him… and in each chapter, Tomie is rendered violently mutilated by his hand, only to grow herself back as something more monstrous. While Tomie actively enables, engineers and encourages this, she is not immune to pain – and I believe Ito is all too keen to make sure you’re aware of this each and every time you witness her demise. Tomie is evil, yes, but more importantly she serves as a narrative vessel for humanity. A woman so beautiful that people are compelled to hurt, torture and kill her? It’s a disgusting yet poignant concept, and it remains distressingly relevant to this day. Tomie is a story that, like the character herself, probably won’t age for a very long time.
Uzumaki is Ito’s largest individual story: while Tomie is a meaty collection of shorts, Uzumaki is a serialized collection of successive chapters, serving as standalone stories but actively leading into the next entry. As such, it’s also one of his most ambitious works! Ito grew up in a small city near Nagano, Japan: surrounded by mountains and hilly roads that border a town with narrow, labyrinthine spaces between the walls of its buildings. Ito’s childhood experiences in such a city are hard to miss when you read the story in its entirety, as its characters find their home town losing itself to the curse of the spiral. Spirals are everywhere from this story, and it’s an intentional attempt by Ito to turn an abstract concept – usually used to suggest comfort and warmth – into something sinister and otherworldly.
There’s a lot of experimental stuff in Uzumaki, on account of Ito attempting to push the concept of the spiral in any way that he can. Some of his most unnerving works can be found in this book as a result: the body horror of watching flesh distorting and twisting inward is a deeply disgusting image, and Ito is happy to make it worse by conjoining the suffering of multiple people into one horrific mound of spiraling flesh. By the end of the story, a vast number of characters are trapped in a Cronenbergian loop of screaming and moaning, and the sense of discomfort it instills in you reminds you how effective Ito is when he’s at his best. Of course, not every experiment succeeds: there’s a section of Uzumaki that feels more like a supernatural Mad Max movie than a horror manga, and it took me out of the book a little when I read it. That being said, the ending brings the story home once again; and Ito’s gothic inspirations have never been clearer as the story comes to a close. Ito has great respect for Lovecraft’s work, and Uzumaki is has that same, wonderful display of the terror in mortal beings coming face-to-face with the incomprehensible, and if they can even hope to withstand such a force of nature.
…In other news, cats!
Junji Ito’s Cat Diary is a personal favourite of mine, and it’s probably because it’s so distinct from its more horrifying counterparts. Ito himself has mentioned that autobiographical content is easier to make, and I think the fact that he’s having so much fun here shows from page to page. I remember an interview in which he spoke about comedy and horror often experiencing overlap with one another, and I think his Cat Diary is where Ito leans into this aspect the most! So much of Ito’s work borders on the absurd, but when the subject matter of the book is as simple as a husband and wife looking after their cats, you begin to realize how amusing some of his panels can truly be. Unnerving expressions that seek to disturb you in a horror manga turn into goofy, funny exaggerations of a man who doesn’t know how to take care of his two pets, and it’s an absolute treat to read.
This is the kind of book I’d recommend to someone who enjoys Ito’s style, yet struggles with getting through a horror book. There’s a warmth and a heart to Junji Ito’s Cat Diary – while it’s typically not a good idea to idolize your heroes, I can’t help but feel happy to see one of my favourite creators presented in a humble light. It’s good to know that whether you’re famous or obscure, no one is capable of understanding the complex machinations of the feline.
Ito has also been known to create adaptations of existing works! While I have yet to read his adaptation of No Longer Human, I have read his version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – its production coinciding with the Kenneth Branagh film of the same name. While I’m no expert on the original work, it’s my understanding that the book keeps most of its essential elements; while allowing for a few creative tweaks, such as the creation of the second Frankenstein monster. While horror is at play in this book, horror is certainly not the focus – much like Shelley’s original. Unlike many film adaptations of the book, there are very few scenes at all where Frankenstein’s monster is actually attempting to be scary! For much of the book, the drama comes from the opposite of that: Frankenstein acting as a normal person with regular ambitions and desires, with his brief foray into godlike aspirations causing a life of pain and suffering for the abomination he creates. Frankenstein’s monster is given much time to simply exist in the world, and Ito’s illustrations depicts him as an excellent blend of both horror and tragedy.
In reading Ito’s adaptation, I get the sense that Frankenstein is truly about the pain that lies in connecting. As Frankenstein’s monster fails to connect with a world that hates his visage, so too does Frankenstein struggle with his relationships with people who want to connect with him – both paths resulting in death and misery. The ending of Ito’s Frankenstein is a sad but subdued affair: not every adaptation of Frankenstein has depicted the sadness of the original classic, and it reminds me of how important an artist is to a story’s pacing and direction. It’s one of Ito’s more subtle qualities, but it’s essential to understanding how his tales work so effectively.
Pacing is one of the most difficult elements a creator has to tackle when making a comic – and you can find some great examples of how Ito handles the challenge in his short stories. Unlike a movie, a reader controls the speed of a comic entirely – while one reader might take their time admiring a comic from panel to panel, the other might be done with the entire thing in five minutes. This creates a problem when you’re working in horror, which can often live and die by its pacing – so Ito has a few methods of controlling how fast his audience reads his manga. One example ties back into how he uses contrast! As previously mentioned, Ito likes to build his shorts around a single, terrifying page: oftentimes, the page beforehand will shield you from viewing the subject of the next one entirely, before revealing his horrific hook in a full-page spread that makes you regret reading the story at all. With enough repetition, the readers begin to slow down – knowing that the next time they turn the page, they may stumble across another scare of equal or greater measure to the last one. The “page turn” is the equalizer of a comic book: one page may contrast with another, whether it’s the literal mood change or the light and dark of his artwork itself. Few know this better than Ito, and few are better at making you dread what lies when you flip to the next panel.
There are many great collections of Ito’s short stories that are available to purchase – but personally, I’d start with Shiver. This particular book includes nine different stories handpicked by Junji Ito as some of his best, and it attaches small pieces of commentary by the mangaka at the end of each tale. One of his favourites, The Long Dream, is included here, along with Fashion Model: the introduction of possibly Ito’s scariest character. A personal fave of mine is here too… but Greased is a story that you’d best read without any commentary from me. These stories are Ito at his peak, and I can’t think of a better way to read them than in this edition.
There’s a certain perverse comfort to be found in Junji Ito’s horror. In an interview with Barnes and Noble in 2019, Ito was asked about why he believed horror to be such an appealing genre to write – and I find his answer particularly illuminating.
“I do think about that, and my thinking is that life is kind of uncertain. The future is uncertain; we don’t know what is going to happen. Maybe something bad is waiting for us, like, we don’t know, and there’s that uncertainty and that anxiety that comes from that. So if we see something scary, if we look at these scary things, then maybe we can prepare mentally for that. Maybe it’s some kind of readying our minds for possible future terrors. That’s the theory I have.”
I like what Ito is saying here, because I think it speaks to the attractiveness of the genre in such a genuine, authentic way. It’s also, in my view, why so many people adore his work: every page that spirals from Junji Ito’s mind, haunting or amusing as they may be, comes from a place of heart, sincerity and passion. Readers are smart, and can tell when an author cares about what they’re making: and it’s hard to get more caring than an author who delights in showing you what he thinks a human snail looks like. So… thanks, Mister Ito. Thanks for that.
(P.S. Junji Ito was going to be a collaborator on Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s Silent Hills, and I’m not going to shut up about it until that game gets made. If you’d like to scream into the void with me about it, check me out on Twitter!)